Natural Evolution

April 5, 2013

Season by season, a Litchfield County home’s gardens grow ever more colorful and dramatic as a Fairfield designer and her clients execute their carefully conceived plan.

Text by Megan Fulweiler     Photography by Matthew Benson


Some artists know what they’re going to paint the minute they put brush to canvas. Others claim their work sweeps them where it will. Fairfield landscape designer Sandra Visnapuu falls into the former group. On her first visit to a client’s property, a vision forms. “I see a scheme and how it should be in one sweep,” she says. “Even if I’m there only to tackle a small corner, I picture it as part of an overall whole.”

That this Litchfield County paradise grows ever richer and more dramatic can be traced to Visnapuu’s ability to create an entire virtual landscape in her head. With every passing season, the blooms are more bountiful and the evergreens more robust. As the garden evolves, its coherence strengthens. “You could remove all the color and still have the great form—the bones,” says Visnapuu with pride. “I think the owners have something very special. From the start we’ve been a team and every year it’s a journey.”

The owners loved the historic nineteenth-century house, designed by famed American architect Ehrick Rossiter, at first sight, and thoughtfully renovated to maintain its unique Victorian character. That part of the project was a rapid success, thanks to the collaboration between the husband, a highly esteemed architect himself, and Reese Owens, a principal of Greenwich-based Halper Owens Architects. The seven surrounding acres, however, have been an ongoing labor of love.

When Visnapuu arrived, much of the hardscape had already been installed, including a serpentine stone wall by Churchill Builders of Woodbury (also the general contractor for the renovations) that separates the front and back yards. The old tennis court had been restored and the husband had swapped out the original pool for a stunning one—along with a pergola—of his own design. Some fruit trees and flowers had been planted here and there, too. “The owners called on me to enhance and add to what they had begun,” Visnapuu explains. Their early meetings, however, generated mutual excitement, leading to a new conception for a memorable garden that would harmonize with the architecture.

Visnapuu launched the plan with a generous perennial bed that creates a river of color and texture that flows along the stone wall. All the classic New England favorites abound, including achillea, heliopsis, iris, lupines, peonies and poppies. To amend and develop the stonework as she went Visnapuu initially looked to Omeri Masonry, a Woodbury company. As the design progressed she turned to her own in-house masons for walls and steps that are as romantic as they are utilitarian.

“A garden shouldn’t reveal its secrets all at once,” says Visnapuu. “Discoveries should unfold.” Accordingly, as you move into the garden the delight intensifies along with the wealth of plant material. A hydrangea-lined path leads to the tennis court and pool, where the view opens to show off the croquet court. One shrubbery border highlights a heady mix of several species of viburnum, dogwood and magnolia, while another showcases lilacs, hydrangeas and well-trimmed hawthorns.

In Britain, a bed of bulbs is labeled a “bulbery” and as the designer and the owners have a great fondness for English gardens, Visnapuu forged lush islands of spring-flowering crocus, daffodils, tulips and grape hyacinth beneath the apple trees. A mowed path meanders through a succession of color. When the flowers flag, the grass springs up to disguise yellowing leaves. The islands remain poetically unmowed till the beginning of July.

The owners walk through the bulbery, past hostas and yellow torch-like blooms of Ligularia down to an enchanting woodland garden, one of the wife’s favorite places. Rhododendrons and evergreens frame the setting’s blossoming trees and myriad flowers such as fritillaries and bluebells (both Spanish and English).

Stone lions mark the picking garden, where still more vibrant plants, like the sunset-hued dahlias, wave their cheery heads. And not far away, herbs flourish in a potager lined with dwarf English boxwood. A charming antique cloche—a gift from the designer to her clients—guards a lustrous clump of basil.

Despite all this magnificence, there’s more to come. Much to the delight of everyone involved, great plans are afoot for the future. “Once you start a garden,” says the wife with delight, “there’s never really an end.” •

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